Building a Landscaping Business in Bethesda
A Bethesda-Chevy Chase student juggles school and the work he does with his dad
Photo by Liz Lynch
Over the past four years, Alex Neilsen has taught himself how to dig a 60-foot-long French drain, install full irrigation systems, and transplant Yoshino cherry trees and Japanese maples. He’s the co-owner of Pineapple Landscaping—and he’s 17.
At 13, Alex knew his parents were struggling financially. His dad, Finn Neilsen, was facing debt after the two Domino’s franchises he owned in the Annapolis area started going into the red. That’s when Alex started Git-R-Done, knocking on neighbors’ doors to ask if he could do their lawns.
Suzanne Kelly lives about nine blocks from Alex’s home in the Westbrook neighborhood of Bethesda. She’s been a client for the past year and a half, and remembers when he climbed into a tree with a chain saw. She had reservations about his age, but his work ethic won her trust and her business.
Alex renamed the company Pineapple Landscaping last year after a suggestion from his uncle. Now, nearly 250 clients depend on him for everything from simple mowing to sod laying and full lawn renovations, presenting challenges in scheduling and logistics for the rising senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
“[Potential clients] blow me off,” Alex says. “They don’t think I know how to do things. They only think I’ve got lawn mowing experience.” Alex took on his first commercial client, Western Market in Bethesda, three years ago. That’s when his dad started to notice a change in his son.
“I could see that he was totally overwhelmed,” Finn says. He was dividing his attention between classwork and fielding calls from clients. He was playing on the B-CC football team while managing his business. Projects were getting bigger, including one job from a property manager that required constant contact—even during school hours. That’s when Finn stepped in, making Home Depot runs and giving Alex rides to jobs.
Then Finn gave his son a challenge: If Alex got the company to 100 clients, he’d quit his job as a news director at WNAV in Annapolis and join his son full time. “We either had to shut it down or press ‘go,’ ” Finn says. Two months later, early last year, Alex delivered on the challenge and they became co-owners and incorporated the business.
Finn’s wife, Inma, and daughter, Sara, 18, were uneasy at first because of the earlier financial issues, but Finn says he’s earning more money than he did in radio journalism. During the week, Finn tries to keep Alex’s workload to a minimum so he can focus on practices and homework. They work 12 to 13 hours on Saturdays and Sundays during the busy months in spring and summer. The company has up to seven employees on the payroll.
Father and son often disagree about Alex taking business calls at school. Finn wants Alex to finish high school and have time to be a teenager. “We’re all learning. It’s uncharted territory,” Finn says.
Right now, Finn handles the company’s finances, prioritizing providing for his family, investing in equipment for the business and putting some money aside for Alex’s future. After high school, Alex wants to join the Air Force and eventually become an airline pilot—and he wants to keep 50 percent ownership of the company. But as the summer turns to fall and another school year approaches, customers can expect Alex to keep picking up the phone. “We’re out in the field every single day,” his dad says. “You’ll always talk to one of us.”